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All aboard the Hogwarts Express

Scotland’s latest tourist attraction is the Harry Potter train, but that is not the only thing magical about the country, actress Juhi Chawla finds out

brunch Updated: Oct 22, 2016 18:05 IST
No trip to Scotland is complete without the mention of the world-famous single malt Scotch.  Juhi went to Glengoyne Distillery to check out what makes the perfect brew
No trip to Scotland is complete without the mention of the world-famous single malt Scotch. Juhi went to Glengoyne Distillery to check out what makes the perfect brew

We went to Scotland because of the kids; because the kids were looking for magic. Specifically the Harry Potter train ride, given that Scotland is JK Rowling’s land.

This was our annual vacation abroad. Jay, my husband, is a member of the Young Presidents Organization and also the International Forum group. Every summer, the members’ families travel together for a holiday.

Initially, when the group was quite new, we visited each other’s countries: Indonesia, Oman and America. Then we began going to countries which we would not normally visit. So we travelled to Madagascar, Antarctica, Japan last year, Greenland, Bhutan and Greece. This year, it was Scotland – so exciting for the kids!

Queen of all cities

Edinburgh, replete with castles, museums and restaurants, is a tourist’s delight burgh under darkness. (Getty Images)

Our trip to Scotland was for five days, of which one was spent in Edinburgh, where we visited all the tourist haunts: the castles, the museums and the lovely restaurants. For vegetarians like us, the menus were limited, but the food was still wonderful.

In Edinburgh, we stayed at the Caledonian, a Waldorf Astoria property right in the heart of town. Apparently, in the old days, this used to be a railway hotel. The railway ended right there and passengers who wanted to stop overnight would just book themselves in. So the hotel has an interesting history, just like Edinburgh itself.

Edinburgh is sometimes known as the Athens of the North. One of the most beautiful cities in Europe, it has two distinct areas, the old town and the new town. But the two, somehow, are seamlessly connected. No wonder the city has been awarded UNESCO’s world heritage site status.

Edinburgh Castle sits on a big volcanic rock in the old town. On our first day, as we rushed to the castle, we went via a huge garden next to one of the main streets, which kind of cascades downwards, almost like a V-shaped space. There were lovely walkways and gardens for picnics and afternoon lazes, but in the old days, according to our guide, the space was a dark and eerie lake with all kinds of strange stories attached.

The castle itself is a fortress with a palace within. We went through the lovely rooms where the king and queen lived, the rooms where gatherings took place, the chapel, and the kitchens. Part of the castle has been turned into a museum, with lifelike models of the past: the kings, the queens, the working people, soldiers, children and scenarios from that era. It was beautifully done and I wish our museums in India were like that.

That evening, we went for a walk through the old town. Our guide was actually an actor and, dressed in a black cape and a black hat, he took us past interesting sights and enacted stories from those eras, complete with different voice tones and accents. This turned the whole evening into a gigantic tale – a fascinating way to learn some history.

Tossing the caber

Juhi’s husband and daughter, Jay and Jhanvi, had a field day in Edinburgh (Juhi Chawla)

There was more history the next day, when we visited the Scone Palace, home of the family of the earl and countess of Mansfield for the past 400 years, and the place of Scottish coronations. The throne at Scone is really just a piece of stone, but a newly crowned king would always walk down the aisle towards it in a ceremony attended by royals and nobles.

Later, we played highland games in the palace grounds: traditional games played by villagers, such as tossing the caber. The caber is a large 4-feet pole, which you have to pick up, spin around and toss, aiming to have it land on the ground in the 12 o’clock position. Then we played weight over the bar, swinging a block of wood and throwing it over a bar placed 15 feet behind us, and later we tossed gumboots into large tyres. Funny games, made funnier by the fact that we really couldn’t play them!

We also went for a safari – a drive in the mountains of Scotland. On our way up, we stopped at a military-looking camp for a lunch of soup and sandwiches, and then continued to the point we’d been aiming for – a lookout point reached by a short walk through some woods.

There was a most amazing view of the lakes below – it was just beautiful! We were 2,000 feet above sea level, and down below was a little village surrounded by green trees. Gorgeous! But by the time we had our phones out to shoot pictures, it was all gone. Fog had rolled in and the scenery vanished in the blink of an eye. That’s the Scottish climate for you – the weather changes by the minute. You could have rain to mist to sunshine all in the space of three minutes.

Dinner at Macbeth’s castle

Shakespeare didn’t just create the Glamis Castle out of thin air. The actual castle belongs to the Strathmore Family. Today, the general public can not only take a tour of the castle, but also enjoy a meal at the castle’s Victorian Kitchen Restaurant (Getty Images)

An hour and a half away from Edinburgh is a lovely resort called Gleneagles, where we’d shifted when we had our fill of the city. It’s huge, with pretty gardens, a maze, a golf course, and a swimming pool. And it turned out to be owned by an Indian family connected to the Mittals. Amazing!

Close to Gleneagles is Glamis castle, where we went for a royal-style dinner, complete with men in kilts, the cutlery and crockery of Scotland of old, and jokes and stories from the past. Between courses, a man played the pipes while a girl dressed in traditional highland dress did the traditional highland fling. During the tour of the castle before dinner, we were taken to its oldest parts – including Duncan’s Hall, famous to us because of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Whoa! We were there!

To end this traditional evening, we were bowed out like royalty, stepping into our cars to the tunes of a pipe band, complete with drumming. It was how it would have been had the Queen been there. It was just fabulous!

Not long later, I couldn’t find a word to describe something more than fabulous – a ride in chartered helicopters over the mountains, lakes and cities of Scotland. It was spectacular. The pilots were also guides, point out sights and telling us all about them. Two hundred years ago, we learned, Scotland was 90 per cent forests. Now it’s just 14 per cent woods, and the government has thrown itself into a venture to reforest all the land it can.

The Harry Potter moment

The Hogwarts Express goes over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which has 21 arches (Getty Images)

But as I said, we’d gone to Scotland looking for magic, so the helicopters dropped us off at Mallaig, where we were to board the Hogwarts Express, a Jacobite steam train, which was used in the famous scene of the Potter films when the Hogwarts Express goes over a viaduct. That was the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which has 21 arches. We were all so excited about the fact that this was the train that Harry Potter was filmed in, so we boarded, thrilled, and then realised that the train is actually quite small; not half as glamorous as it seemed in the movie.

But even so, it is the Harry Potter train, complete with a shop in one of the carriages, selling Harry Potter merchandise from T-shirts to wands, badges to broomsticks, and all the sweets and chocolates named in the books. Yes, it’s THE Harry Potter train, and it’s quite a ride! You can’t leave Scotland without taking a ride in it.

From HT Brunch, October 23, 2016

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